75% of Ebola cases are female: want to know why?

30 Nov 1999
Hey guys, my name is Saúl, I'm part of the One Girl online media team and have been working on media coverage for all your awesome Do It In a Dress adventures! My background is in journalism with specific training in human rights and gender studies, so you can imagine just how psyched I was to come on board the One Girl team, a chance to write uplifting stories about the transformative nature of education for girls? It couldn't be more up my alley! I'm going to bring you up to speed with the Ebola crisis currently sweeping through Sierra Leone and other West African nations and why it requires a deeper understanding of girls and their experience in situations like these. The Ebola outbreak is a complex situation and you probably have a few questions, so I'm going to answer these basic ones today:
  • What exactly IS Ebola?
  • Where did it come from?
  • Why has it spread so fast?
  • Why are 75% of reported cases either women or girls?
But before continuing, there is one really important thing to understand: Ebola is both a consequence and cause of poverty.

What exactly IS Ebola and where did it come from?

Ebola is a family of five known viruses which have very high mortality rates. The one everyone is concerned about is Zaire Ebola Virus, which is the most deadly strain that which has caused over 2984 deaths (as of late September) according to the World Health Organisation. Some predictions estimate between 77 000 to 277 000 cases by the end of 2014 if the virus continues to spread at its current pace as a worst case scenario. Ebola was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the Ebola River in 1976. There have been a number of major outbreaks since then so to help break it down, I've created an interactive map for you to explore that tracks the geography and history of the virus:

Symptoms start with fevers but quickly progress to severe internal bleeding causing blood pressure to drop and major organs to shut down. Usually symptoms show between 2 to 21 days after infection and death occurs typically after 8 or 9 days from first symptoms. The virus is very deadly with a mortality rate between 80%-90%, and at the moment there's no cure. Very fast, very deadly.

Why has Ebola spread so fast?

A lot of it has to do with poverty. Let me explain: citizens of developing nations often lack access to education. Where education is not around communities come up with their own explanations to the things that happen in their lives. And because this is the first outbreak of Ebola in this region, there is a lack of education about what Ebola is, how it is spread and how it is treated. Cultural factors like folk remedies for the virus, and death customs such as washing the body of the deceased unnecessarily expose more people to the virus - causing it to spread even faster. These are preventable factors which exist because of a lack of education. And poverty, which has lead to a lack of education, has meant that the virus is spreading faster than ever before. Now that the Ebola epidemic is in full swing, the Government of Sierra Leone has had to delay the start of the school year, to try and limit the spread of the outbreak. The cost of goods and services has also grown dramatically as a result of the epidemic, which means that most Sierra Leoneans are struggling more than ever.

Ebola Poverty Sierra Leone

But why then are 75% of the cases women and girls?

Because epidemics like these are gendered experiences. That means that a person's experience in that context will be different according to the gender they perform. Okay "what do you mean, Saúl?" I hear you saying, here are the nuts and bolts of it: Women in West African nations are typically expected to be the primary care givers to the sick. They prepare the food, bathe, feed, clean the sick and even help embalm the dead, who still carry the virus. This means adult women at higher risk of infection.
It's important to remember that the experience of girls is not the same as that of women. We have to make sure not to merge their experience with their mothers and risk silencing their plight as well.
Not only are they expected to participate in care-giving alongside their mothers, their access to education is stifled by this terrible virus. Because of their gender and age, their experiences are fundamentally different to those of their fathers, brothers and even mothers. A lack of access to education means less literacy, lower incomes and larger, less healthy families in the futures of girls in Sierra Leone. The continuation of the poverty cycle is inevitable when access to education is blocked.

So what can we do?

You can start by making a donation to our Ebola Fund. And believe us when we say EVERY dollar counts.

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Because we CAN do something about it. It's not going to be easy - and it's really, really important to recognise that these girls are tough, they're not helpless victims and through the programs that we're running with Restless Development, we're bringing education about Ebola right to them. Now more than ever is the time to be investing in the education of Sierra Leone's girls - because girls are the solution to stopping the spread of this disease and preventing a future epidemic of this scale happening again. With education about the disease and quick international intervention to stop Ebola, the outbreak can be controlled. The fight to control the outbreak has only just begun, so please join us by contributing to our Ebola Fund.

Images sourced from WHO

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